While Christians often point to the successes of the Gospel message, it’s important to acknowledge that Jesus’ New Testament mission cannot necessarily be called successful in the usual way that society measures success. Despite reaching a large number of people in Judea and Galilee, and despite confirming his words through astounding miracles – raising the dead, curing the crippled, healing the deaf, restoring sight to the blind – Jesus in his mission is unable to persuade more than a minority of his hearers.
Jesus is painfully aware of this [John 6:66-67] and yet he does not moderate the severity of his words to attract more followers. Instead, Jesus explains that the words he speaks are not his to moderate, they are given to him by God his Father [John 14:10]. What he says, he says out of fidelity to the Father [John 12:49]. If this means futility, if it means that many will reject those words, so be it. Even though Jesus knows this rejection will increase to the point that powerful people will have him executed, when it comes to the night of his arrest, Jesus, knowing what will happen the next day, accepts his coming suffering and death in fidelity to God the Father [Matthew 26:39]. On Good Friday, Jesus experiences the depths of futility: the people he has tried to reach have either rejected him or are powerless to help him. He suffers and dies in misery, abandoned by his friends and exposed to the mockery of his enemies. Of course, that is not the end of the story: as we remember every Easter, Jesus does not stay dead, he rises from death on the third day. Surely this must finally persuade: rising from the dead! Yes, it is persuasive to some, but not to all: while the Christian Church grows rapidly after Jesus’ resurrection [Acts 5:14], most of the population of Palestine at the time does not become Christian. Even today, demographers indicate that only a bit over thirty percent of the world’s population consider themselves Christians: the other nearly 70 percent do not.
Why, then, this futility? It is true to say that Jesus’ hearers, then and today, are never forced: some accept the message but others reject it. That many do reject it may be explained by the fact that the message is demanding: it calls for sacrifice, suffering, and self-denial, which are things that not everyone is willing to endure. Jesus knows this, and yet he makes no concessions. He tells his followers to deny themselves and carry their cross [Luke 9:23], and he literally does that himself [John 19:17]. Jesus goes “all-in” on fidelity, despite what it costs in futility. He does this not for his own benefit (far from it!) but for the benefit of his followers. Jesus’ fidelity is rewarded: on Easter Sunday, he is raised to new life. Fidelity triumphs over futility, life triumphs over death.
Yet despite Jesus’ resurrection, futility is not gone. Christianity continues to be mocked, ignored, and rejected, and this is as true today as it ever was. It’s tempting, in the face of this futility, to try to “improve” the Christian message to make it more easily accepted: to trade away fidelity in the hopes of reducing futility. The Christian experience through history is that this does not work: while in the short term a watered-down Christianity may seem to be more acceptable to some, in the end, the whole point of Christianity evaporates.
The fact is that there is no getting rid of futility, because it is part of our human condition. Yes, we can pretend to be successful as much as we like, we can talk about helping ourselves and pulling ourselves up by the boot-straps. Maybe, with some luck, we can, by pursuing “success”, be considered socially acceptable for a while and gain for ourselves some years of comfort and ease, but the truth is that despite our very best efforts, at best we live a few decades, perhaps accomplish a few things that do not last, and then die, leaving it all behind. Futility is not going away: we need to acknowledge that, and deal with it.
This is where Jesus comes in. He offers not self-help, but “God-help”: we are saved not through learning to help ourselves, but through learning to allow God to help us. But this is fidelity: entrusting ourselves to the truth of another, to God and his truth. It is why Jesus maintains his fidelity no matter what lack of success he faces, because fidelity is the only way forward. Yet fidelity is difficult, because we entrust ourselves to God as he is, not how we or others might like him to be. As Jesus shows, this leads to controversy and rejection. Yet the only path to resurrection is through the cross. Fidelity comes at a cost: this cost is not optional, but it is worth it. Jesus’ example is our way forward: be faithful always, despite the cost, as Jesus is faithful. Our fidelity will not be in vain: Jesus’ fidelity leads to resurrection and new life. In following Jesus, we too will share in his resurrection.